Members of the Basin Creek wolf pack chase one another in an open meadow. Yellowstone National Park, WY
We had heard from the lookout warden on Mount Sheridan that the Basin Creek pack – in our direction of travel – were active and we had a good chance of spotting them. Marla and I were backpacking in the Yellowstone backcountry, on a lollipop loop that circumnavigated Heart Lake. We added the hike up Mount Sheridan that afforded us a commanding view of Heart Lake and the Two Ocean Plateau, an enormous swath of wild country that’s perfect for wolves. At Basin Creek, we watched five or six wolves, one of them black as coal, playing like dogs on the forest edge. The next morning, they appeared in fog, rising on hind legs to play fight, then chased one another all across the meadow. A pair of cow elk entered the meadow, sniffed the air, then moved swifly to the forest sanctuary, their heads up as they sprinted away from their natural enemy. It was one of the most memorable wild experiences of our lives.
The Endangered Species Act is supposed to protect wildlife and recover the species – get them de-listed. Opponents say it doesn’t work because the list keeps growing and animals are perpetually endangered. But consider where bald eagles and gray wolves would be without protection. And what about black-footed ferrets, still hanging on by a thread, but hanging on nonetheless? The Act works, but suffers from lack of political will, inadequate funding, and a sort of elitism that favors more charasmatic creatures. In the midst of mass extinction, many people (who consider themselves separate from nature) have difficulty finding empathy for a mouse, a frog, or an insect. And there’s the argument that the ESA works against business, the whole spotted owl mess when a few owls got in the way of government subsidized deforestation. What does any of this have to with wolves? Everything frankly. There will always be a great divide about this creature; irrational judgements made by those that love and those that choose to hate wolves. Wolves are supremely skilled hunters that sometimes overkill, and they are among the most socially evolved creatures. Many choose to hate wolves because they sometimes prey on livestock, while spreading irrational lies. What emotion lives in man that would drive him to slaughter animals with extraordinary cruelty, killing with intent on extinction? Our government, apparently sick and tired of managing a controversial apex predator, just took the unprecented action of moving gray wolves from endangered to common vermin (predator) status. This article in Wildlife News details many ways that it’s legal to kill wolves in Wyoming.
We have spent many millions of dollars recovering gray wolves in the Lower 48. And it’s been a spectacularly successful recovery in spite of undying hatred and the SSS – shoot, shovel, shut up creed that prevails in many corners of the West. Wolves have played an important role in the recovery of riparian areas and aspen forest in Greater Yellowstone, restoring a balance that’s impossible to achieve without an apex predator. It hasn’t been perfect, but our job is to make certain that the recovery is sustainable and manage the species. If that means there’s a hunt in places where wolves are misbehaving near residential areas, preying on livestock, or overkilling elk herds, that’s ok – it’s managing the species. Ethical hunting gives stakeholders a vested interest in sustaining wildlife – hunters are conservationists. Turning our back on wolves and making it open season – just because they are wolves – is a horrible decision that promises to undo nearly two decades of recovery. Get ready for mass killing, poisoning of females and pups in dens, cruel snowmobile chases over many miles, aerial gunners wounding animals and leaving them to suffer until they freeze to death. And get ready to re-list gray wolves, if we still have an Endangered Species Act in a few years.
That all sounds too apacolyptic, right? Consider this from Barry Lopez’s “Of Wolves and Men”:
“The belief that man could kill without moral restraint, without responsibility, because the wolf was only an animal, would take on terrifying proportions during the strychnine campaigns in ninetenth-century America. The European wolf hunter of 1650 might kill twenty to thirty wolves in his lifetime; a single American wolfer of the late 1800’s could kill four of five thousand in ten years.”
Those attitudes still live in the West. We have learned absolutely nothing.